Is your youth group autism friendly?

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a hugely broad and varied collection of conditions, symptoms, and traits – so trying to gather ‘autistic friendly’ guidelines is a difficult task. However, a few basic rules of thumb, and a keener understanding of what to look out for will go a long way.

Understanding ASD Basics

Autism is a cognitive disorder characterised by social discomfort, repetitive behaviours, linear focus, concrete thinking, and difficulties with language. The spectrum is so broad that you may not notice any traits at all – but you could also see so many physical and behavioural characteristics that you end up mistaking it for something else.

Physically, you might see a young person constantly making fists, shaking their arms, or flapping. They might hum, or click their tongue. They might resist physical contact, and will often struggle making eye contact.

Socially you could experience a young person with ASD standing too close to you when they talk, speaking too loudly, or ‘ignoring’ cues. They can be uncomfortably honest or seem inappropriately aloof.

One of the most common traits, however, is a difficulty when trying to grasp something abstract. So taking figuratively, sarcastically, or metaphorically can be a huge wall to concrete understanding.

Common Problems in Youth Clubs for Autistic Young People

We do love our extrovert-driven, spontaneous and loud up front presence don’t we? But these three pieces can actually be the most unhelpful traits for integrating young people on the spectrum.

Extrovert-driven assumes a social ease, spontaneous assumes that unpredictability is comfortable, and loud assumes an ability to take complex cues from voice changes. None of these are necessarily safe assumptions with autistic young people.

Then our teaching styles can be heavily reliant on abstract story telling and object lessons. Both of which are an enemy to the concrete learner. I often do a talk about two figurative people called ‘Bill and Ben’ who live in a cardboard box that I hold in my hands. An young person with ASD might not know that I’m talking figuratively, and that the box I hold doesn’t actually contain some form of tiny person called Bill.

Some Guidelines for ASD Friendly Projecting

Your ministry should serve the people that come – so I’m not going to suggest you change everything to fit all the varying people that could ever be. This would also be impossible! Some of these guidelines, while being very helpful to many young people with ASD, might be incredibly unhelpful to, say a young person with Downs Syndrome. So read with caution and apply with care.

There are loads of tips and guidelines online that you can find to help you – here are just a few that I’ve found to be particularly useful:

Create Consistency

Having a regular plan, or at least consistent names for project elements (‘game time’) will create a track that a young person with ASD can follow. They know what’s coming next and can transition smoothly into it. Sometimes it’s worth printing off a simple plan for a session that they can follow, with a space to tick off what happens as they go. Routine, although we can hate it as youth workers, is really important to a young person with ASD.

Know The Parents

Talking to parents can give you clear insights into the particular triggers and needs of their own child. This allows you to fit into the young person’s social development while learning how you can very specifically support their needs.

Be Visual and Tip Your Hat to the Concrete

Having clear, physical, colourful visual aids can really help to teach young people with ASD – especially when they are things that they can handle and work with themselves. At the same time, when you teach with objects and when you use stories, do make a note that it is ‘just a story’ or ‘just a metaphor’.

Create Your Environment With Care

It’s tempting to fill a youth space with lots of competing sounds and sights – filling the room with intense environmental distraction. This can be torturous to a young person with ASD, and makes it almost impossible for them to focus. I’d actually argue that this habit we have towards intense levels of environmental distraction is bad for most young people anyway – even those with ADHD. Choose your environment carefully – take care particularly over the overt use of lights and sounds.

Watch Your Language

By which I mean abstract, figurative, sarcastic, over over generalising language. In the same way you would speak to someone who has learned English as a second language, avoid too much that needs interpretation over translation. It’s great to use abstract language – just make sure that you let people have another way of seeing it too.

Provide For Unstructured Time

Many young people love the free time to create their own activities and have their own conversations. This time, however, can be very difficult for an young person with Autism. Always make sure there is some optional ‘thing to do’ or ‘space to be’ in unstructured times.

Keep Instructions Simple

Everyone hates a three hour explanation for a game anyway. Find a way of communicating complicated instructions simply and visually that doesn’t have long sequences. Videos can be similarly difficult to follow, so if you have it, then turn on the closed captions feature.

Provide For Note Taking

If you’re giving talks or asking them to take notes or write anything down – provide for how they do this. One young person I know with ASD loves to draw – so during talks I’d let them draw what they think I’m saying on a board at the front. Sometimes handwriting can be a struggle – so why not provide a laptop or tablet for them to use? This is particularly important to think about in nonverbal young people.

Allow For Messiness

Some young people with ASD can focus better if they are standings, rolling, swinging, bouncing from foot to foot, or just walking around. Create a youth work culture that accepts this as ok (within reason), and provides safe spaces for it.

 

An open letter to Nitin Passi, CEO of Missguided reg. their ‘Send Me Nudes’ sign

Below is an open letter to the CEO of Missguided regarding a reckless sign put up in their Bluewater store.

Kudos to Rachel Gardner for finding this and bringing it to the youthwork community’s attention. Credit also to Rachel for starting this petition online. Please sign and share!

Please consider writing / tweeting to them yourselves. This is not a small issue, and it needs a big response!

On to the letter…

 

An open letter to Nitin Passi CEO of ‘Missguided’

Missguided HQ
Missguided Ltd,
75 Trafford Wharf Rd,
Trafford Park,
Manchester
M17 1ES
@Missguided
@Missguided_help

 

06 Aug. 2017

Dear Nitin Passo, CEO

I am a youth worker with over a decades’ professional experience working with teenagers and vulnerable young people.

I was horrified to learn that your brand store in Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent, has a large neon sign reading ‘Send me nudes X.’ It may be that you’re ignorant to either the sexual pressures of young people, or the law regarding sexting culture.

Young people are under enormous pressure to produce and send sexually explicit pictures of themselves via the internet and on their smart devices. Childline, the NSPCC, and the The UK Home Office classify pressuring young people to ‘send nudes’ as abuse.

Legally, asking a young person to ‘send nudes’ is asking them to engage in the creation and distribution of child pornography. Your sign, thus your brand, is complicit in that.

Legality aside; if you had spent any real time with a sixteen year old consumer who had followed your advice to ‘send nudes’, then you would witness first-hand the destruction that such a simple act creates. You would see the wake of broken relationships, emotional havoc, and intense bullying. You would learn about moved schools, social service involvement, police case numbers, and court hearings.

You would see childhood robbed in a moment of poor decision making. Your sign, thus your brand, is complicit in that.

As a brand marketing to the 16-35 year old female consumer bracket, having such a sign on your wall is simply shameful and reckless. You have a responsibility to liberate the girls to which you sell your clothing, helping them to feel empowered and stand against the abusive peer pressure they increasingly face.

Please. Remove this sign, and consider the awesome influence you have on the lives of young people.

In the meantime, I will continue to work with the young people you are treating so cavalierly, helping to pick up the pieces. I will also use my own influence to encourage young people to boycott your brand and affiliates.

Tim Gough

Young People and Porn… Dialing back on the Pop-Psychology

Porn addiction is a serious thing, and the very last thing I want to do on here is to minimise or trivialise it. It genuinely messes up minds, and mangles marriages. Addiction (rather than just habit or compulsion) rearranges your neurological pathways and replaces your body’s natural abilities to release chemicals like dopamine. It is a big deal.

However…

You don’t need to have had a massive childhood trauma to want to watch porn. You don’t have to be from a poor background, have messed up parents, have been abused, or be a closet sexual deviant. There’s not always ‘a deeper reason’ beyond that fact that porn is just easily accessible, rarely challenged, and it really feels good.

Can we just let that sink in?

Porn is readily accessible, growingly acceptable, and it feels good.

I’m sorry for the condescending tone but I recently asked a huge group of professional, career youth workers about their strategies for helping young people through porn habits, and it was like I’d turned on the pop-psychology button.

“There must be a deeper reason behind it.”
“Something must be missing from their life, can you find out what it is?”
“They’re probably clinically depressed.”
“Do you know what it is they’re trying to escape from?”
“Maybe they’re homosexual, and are looking for an identity outlet.”

That last one might have been my favourite.

Now all these things could be, can be, might be true. But first off, what are we doing diagnosing clinical disorders and conditions? Secondly, what if we are missing something much much simpler because we’re too busy searching for the obviously buried deep and dark reason. It’s actually pretty easy to convince young people that there’s a deeper reason through this kind of insistence – then you’ve created all sorts of problems.

Sometimes we should seek out reasons behind the reasons, and we should always be alert to the potential for hidden issues. Sometimes, however, porn is just accessible, acceptable, and feels good. Does that make it ok? No, of course not! But the way of addressing it is entirely different than going totally Dr. Phil on them.

Addiction is a big word. It’s a medical word. So is depression btw. Let’s be careful with our throwaway comments and start by looking at what is right in front of us.

Even just 15 years ago (when most of us youth workers were young people), accessing porn as a teenager was hard work, you had to really make an effort for it. If you were going to go to so much trouble to do so then the likely chance was that there was a deeper reason.

Today? Not so much.

Porn is no trivial thing. We must work together to see it less accessible and acceptable, and point young people to things that both feel good and genuinely are good for them. But let’s dial back the Dr. Phil a little ok? My kids are getting sick of it.

Thanks! 😛

Real Stories from 40 Women in Youth Work

On this International Women’s Day I’d like to pay respect, honour and gratitude to female youth workers.Lingering over from Western Christendom is a patriarchal and masculine church. This interprets theology and practice with a bent that need correcting. In many churches, we are quite happy for a woman to be a youth and children’s pastor, but even within those apparent ‘safe zones’ there are subversive and subliminal undercurrents of hostility and prejudice.

Lingering over from Western Christendom is a patriarchal and masculine church. This interprets theology and practice with a bent that need correcting. In many churches, we are quite happy for a woman to be a youth and children’s pastor, but even within those apparent ‘safe zones’ there are subversive and subliminal undercurrents of hostility and prejudice.

A month or so ago I asked forty female youth workers what particular struggles they have had in their jobs, and to share their stories.

Below is a snapshot of quotes from those interviews. These are things our sisters have experienced, and things that have been said directly to them. I’m not leaving them here to judge or pick apart, and I’m not making any theological argument or taking an overt position. I leave these here as an attitude check: Church, we must do better for our sisters!

“I can’t be a proper pastors/youth pastors wife if I don’t get my hair cut short (at my current church). Men coming up to me to say I should be helping not teaching (not in my current church)”

“My biggest struggle is establishing credibility and respect. “

“First question asked by some parents and particularly older ministers when they meet me…”Have you gone to Bible school?” or “Where did you study?” “

“Some random guy, “I bet those high school boys love THAT youth group.””

“Dad: “I’ll manage my son. Being a girl, you don’t understand what he’s dealing with””

“Ladies from church constantly introducing me to their sons or showing me pictures of them, “Don’t miss the plane!””

“Somehow young(ish) divorced church men think it’s a good idea to add me on facebook and private message me to “get to know me”.”

“For about a year, I had people tell me I needed to hurry up and find a man because, being a woman, I couldn’t relate to boys. Two years later, they told me to be more ladylike so I could relate to the girls, because I’m only good at relating to the boys (I’ve always been a tomboy). Also, there are some concerns that me wearing men’s clothing may make my girls lesbian?”

“Women don’t belong in ministry.”

“How can you be a minister AND a mom?”

“You aren’t a pastor, just a director of a program.”

“It never occurs to anyone that I might be trained and/or seminary educated.”

“Church members try to fix me up with their single sons/nephews. I also hear “she’ll never relate to boys in youth group” and “the boys only keep coming to youth group because she’s cute” in equal measure.”

“I was told recently I couldn’t speak at a youth event because there were some ministers that, if they were there, would walk out.”

“Most of my opposition has come from other women, not men. Most of my biggest supporters and people who will go to bat for me are men. A lot of the opposition comes (I think) from women’s own insecurities and struggles with pride that cause them to lash our towards us. Other women have said, “go and get a real job, be a school teacher” or “how can you be a pastor your not married” or “how can you be a pastor you’re not a mom”… the list could go on and on.”

“”how can you possibly relate to male students?” I guess in the same way male YP relate to female students.”

“Does your husband write your messages? That’s nice your husband lets you come hangout with kids.”

“”you are doing a good job, but The church would prefer a man in this role, eventually””

“The one thing I still face (even with an MDiv, even being licensed) are church members who just can’t/won’t accept my authority based only on my gender.”

“What I find fascinating is it seems to now be younger men, in their late 20’s, early 30’s more so than the older generation.”

“Finding a job. Do you know how many job descriptions have the words he/him/his? And then I have gotten responses back with one question: “Are you a man?” I have two degrees in student ministry and have volunteered for nearly 15 years in various capacities but rarely get any response.”

“I occasionally get asked when I’m going to have kids (which stings a little since my husband and I have been struggling with infertility for the past years) but other than that I am truly blessed to serve where I do.”

“I feel supported overall, but there is the feeling that I am incapable due to my gender.”

“I am the children’s minister at our church, note I am paid staff. I was told last week I wasn’t allowed to go on the staff retreat bc I was a woman…. my husband could go and “represent” me.”

“Our District Youth Director refuses to believe that I’m not the administrative assistant.”

“I have noticed the two people before me in the position were called youth “pastors” and were men; I come in and am now the youth “director.””

“I don’t think it’s been much of an issue ministry-wise–I think it’s been more of an issue when it comes to dating. Some men are not a fan of women in ministry leadership positions.”

“Biggest problem for me being told I’m so young I’m only 29. And still single but i don’t listen to what others say and focus on God and my youth kids.”

“I have had parents, (former) volunteers, and church members tell me they’re glad my husband is the teaching pastor for our HS students “because that’s how God has intended for ministry to be led.” Little do they know that’s why my husband teaches. It’s been so hard for me to teach because of that.”

“I was invited to be a lead speaker on a training tour, but then they had to ask me to step down because the hosting church was too conservative to have a woman teach.”

“To my husband (who is a police officer): “At least you’re in charge at home… right?””

“Commentary about details like: my haircut, my clothing being too pretty for preaching (it was conservative), “you’re a really solid preacher for a woman.” Then, there are the people who talk to my husband about ministry details, instead of (or in front of) me.”

“I’ve been around male leaders will come up and talk to my husband and I but literally ignore me. Won’t shake my hand, make eye contact, or acknowledge my comments.”

Dating In The Youth Group – The Danger Signs! (Comic)

P1040050A new set by our In House Comic, Chloe Perrin. Check out her work at chloescomics.wordpress.com

 

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I asked 185 youth leaders what they call ‘young people’. Here’s what they said

What to call the participants of your youth ministry doesn’t seem like it should be a high priority. Realistically though, how you label people in the plural will have a dramatic impact on that group identity and sense of value, and it will instinctively give subversive impressions to those you’re speaking to.

I asked 185 American youth workers what they call their teenagers, with the option to add other names. Here’s the results:

Adolescents – 0

Children – 0

Young Church – 1

Kids – 2

Young Men and Women – 3

Young People – 5

Teenagers -6

Other – 9

Youth – 14

Students – 145

Interestingly, ‘students’ is not a name we would use in the UK, as it usually refers more specifically to someone studying, usually at university.

Some of the comments that came with the results defended calling young people ‘students’ is it sets a tone that they are there to learn about God, while still being more respectful sounding than ‘youth’ which often carries negative cultural contentions. I totally get this.

There are 2 issues through that I’d like to gently raise: First, it sets the teenagers in ministry apart from other ages in ministry for a reason that is not actually specific to them. We are all – or at least all should be – students of God! This could set the precedent that the adults know it all.

The second issue is perhaps a more Biblical one. The  Bible uses the words ‘Youth’ (בְּחֻרִים), ‘young man’ (בחור) and ‘the young’/‘youths’ (ילדות) – as distinct from children or adults. They are a Biblical people group designated by their age, so should have this noted in the same ways ‘men’s’ or ‘senior’ ministry would be.

Whatever you decide to call your young people, make sure you are respectful, loving, compassionate, specific and clear. It’s worth some thought, eh?

Trump, Sorkin, Politics, Fatherhood and Youth

I walk a horrible, melting line between my passions. I’m politically aware, and have been active in politics since I was 16, writing for newspapers and supporting campaigns. I’m also a Christian youth worker trying to remain neutral in a ministry among impressionable people and charity work conditions.

For this reason I painfully made the decision to steer clear of the US election in my blog and social media world. Aaron Sorkin’s letter to his daughters, however, is what I choose to share to break my silence.

You can read the original on Vanity Fair here, or re-blogged below. I apologise to anyone with sensibilities around some raw language.

Aaron Sorkin & Youth Workers

Sorkin, most famously known for The West Wing, has always been my favorite modern writer, and I have repeatedly devoured all he has produced. I respect him as a man with a difficult history, rich talent and sensible perspective. In this heartfelt and authentic letter, he pushes hard on what fatherhood should aspire to be. He gives reasons to hope, he invites to a mission, and a purpose to persevere, he demonstrates standing under persecution, and soaks it all in rich compassion and promises to always walk alongside. He gives responsibility and value – yet shows humility and vulnerability.

Is this not our job as youth leaders, parents and ministers of the Gospel? Give hope, give mission, give purpose, demonstrate standing under persecution, constantly be compassionate, promise to walk alongside, equip young people with responsibility and value – but from a place of humility and vulnerability.

Couldn’t We Just…?

Before I share the letter, I thought I’d give a brief video clip first from Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’ which gives a reasonably clear picture of where America was, is and could be. As someone with an American wife and lots of American friends and family – I say yes please. Couldn’t we just…?

I’ve been rightfully encouraged to pray and trust in God. Absolutely! But there is also a time to stand up and stand against. To be clear, outspoken and alive for Christ by defending the poor, the weak, the orphan, the foreigner and the hungry. This might be standing against the Trumps-that-be, and serving – whole-hardheartedly and humbly – the weakest among us. No time for pouting or sitting back to ‘let God handle it.’ Let’s act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

Enjoy. (video – then letter)

 

Sorkin Girls,

Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from. That’s a terrible feeling for a father. I won’t sugarcoat it—this is truly horrible. It’s hardly the first time my candidate didn’t win (in fact it’s the sixth time) but it is the first time that a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn has.

And it wasn’t just Donald Trump who won last night—it was his supporters too. The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate. Men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly, and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration struck a blow for misogynistic shitheads everywhere. Hate was given hope. Abject dumbness was glamorized as being “the fresh voice of an outsider” who’s going to “shake things up.” (Did anyone bother to ask how? Is he going to re-arrange the chairs in the Roosevelt Room?) For the next four years, the President of the United States, the same office held by Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R., J.F.K. and Barack Obama, will be held by a man-boy who’ll spend his hours exacting Twitter vengeance against all who criticize him (and those numbers will be legion). We’ve embarrassed ourselves in front of our children and the world.

And the world took no time to react. The Dow futures dropped 7,000 points overnight. Economists are predicting a deep and prolonged recession. Our NATO allies are in a state of legitimate fear. And speaking of fear, Muslim-Americans, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans are shaking in their shoes. And we’d be right to note that many of Donald Trump’s fans are not fans of Jews. On the other hand, there is a party going on at ISIS headquarters. What wouldn’t we give to trade this small fraction of a man for Richard Nixon right now?

So what do we do?

First of all, we remember that we’re not alone. A hundred million people in America and a billion more around the world feel exactly the same way we do.

Second, we get out of bed. The Trumpsters want to see people like us (Jewish, “coastal elites,” educated, socially progressive, Hollywood…) sobbing and wailing and talking about moving to Canada. I won’t give them that and neither will you. Here’s what we’ll do…

…we’ll fucking fight. (Roxy, there’s a time for this kind of language and it’s now.) We’re not powerless and we’re not voiceless. We don’t have majorities in the House or Senate but we do have representatives there. It’s also good to remember that most members of Trump’s own party feel exactly the same way about him that we do. We make sure that the people we sent to Washington—including Kamala Harris—take our strength with them and never take a day off.

We get involved. We do what we can to fight injustice anywhere we see it—whether it’s writing a check or rolling up our sleeves. Our family is fairly insulated from the effects of a Trump presidency so we fight for the families that aren’t. We fight for a woman to keep her right to choose. We fight for the First Amendment and we fight mostly for equality—not for a guarantee of equal outcomes but for equal opportunities. We stand up.

America didn’t stop being America last night and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always—always—been followed by our finest hours.

Roxy, I know my predictions have let you down in the past, but personally, I don’t think this guy can make it a year without committing an impeachable crime. If he does manage to be a douche nozzle without breaking the law for four years, we’ll make it through those four years. And three years from now we’ll fight like hell for our candidate and we’ll win and they’ll lose and this time they’ll lose for good. Honey, it’ll be your first vote.

The battle isn’t over, it’s just begun. Grandpa fought in World War II and when he came home this country handed him an opportunity to make a great life for his family. I will not hand his granddaughter a country shaped by hateful and stupid men. Your tears last night woke me up, and I’ll never go to sleep on you again.

Love,

Dad

When Youth Work Is Supposed To Be Difficult

This morning I had a great chat with a leader of a national youth project that develops events and camps where young people are expected to work hard, study and learn more about God. It runs totally counter to much of our popular youth work models, but is also exponentially growing and spreading nationally every year, developing incredibly enthusiastic and mature young people.

In contrast, one of the most popular youth work models of the last few decades has been the ‘Funnel Method.’ Made popular by Dough Fields’ ‘Purpose Driven Youth Ministry,’ the idea is to run several projects aimed at different crowds with different content and funnel young people down from easy-to-attend, accessible events, into deeper more clearly Christian groups.

In the funnel method, you effectively start with a large crowd event that makes connections and does very basic (if any) Gospel teaching. From that first connection, you invite attendees to a slightly smaller, but still accessible group (like an Alpha Course) that goes into a little more detail about the Christian Faith. The next step is to look for conversions, and move those into a smaller and more specific group aimed at new believers. You then develop this further into yet again smaller and deeper groups, ending with a core community of young people who are leading and maturing.

Fields goes into great detail about how this is done, and why it can be successful; and he’s right, it can be very successful if it’s done properly, is well resourced, and if it matches the needs of the context that you’re in.

So What’s The Problem?

The funnel method can be a little ‘bait n’ switch’ calling young people to a fun event without being honest about what you’re doing. Jesus always immediately called people to Himself without needing to warm them up. It can also create a fragmented youth ministry complete with worn-out and under-resourced leaders.

The bigger problem though, is when the vibe of the first accessible project trickles down into all the others. This is when the funnel method is done badly, or is being pushed into a context that doesn’t fit it.

What I mean is this: If you’re finding it hard to get attendees at the smaller projects it’s easy to water down the content, and add more comfortable activities taken from the larger events. This is especially true when young people are introduced to you as the ‘fun group’ but now you’re asking them to do ‘boring stuff.’ So every project becomes a games night with a God slot, or a disco with a couple of Christian songs thrown in. Your real discipleship never gets off the ground.

The Candy Culture

If you haven’t yet seen ‘That Sugar Film’ by Damon Gameau, or Jamie Oliver’s American ‘Food Revolution’ then you should! Not only will these freak the sugar right out of you, they go into detail about the biological changes that happen in your body in a sugar heavy diet.

Tim Hawkins, in ‘Fruit That Will Last’ makes this same link to sugar-styled youth ministry projects. These are projects that dial up the fun and stimulus constantly, without demanding any real work at following Jesus. He says,

“‘Hype’ is like sugar in your diet. A splash of it every now and again livens things up amazingly. Life gets a little dull without it. But if your total diet is sugar, then it won’t build ‘fruit that will last’. Feeding kids on sugar will always have 3 results
i. an initial rush of energy
ii. then they will be flat
iii. then they will be fat.”

If you never move into a real space where young people have to work at their relationship with Jesus, coached by leaders who genuinely walk with and educate them, then you’re creating a youth ministry without lasting believers.

These young people will not be able to grow and develop into fully functioning members of a church, or be able to rely on God in a substantive way when life gets real. If they are able to do these things, then they’re probably being mentored by something or someone outside your youth work – which makes your ministry pretty redundant right?

The Bible’s Pattern

Young People throughout the Bible were educated by their religious leaders. In fact, it was only relatively recently that education was separated from religion. Robert Raikes founded the Sunday School Movement to teach young people in church that weren’t being educated by the state.

In the Old Testament, the whole nation of Israel was involved in teaching about God’s promises. This was a constant thing which was woven into the fabric of their lives.

‘These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live… 7 Impress them on your children’ [Deuteronomy 6:1-7 ].

In Proverbs, we are given a complete educational theory that revolves around young people learning God’s own wisdom.

In the New Testament we are introduced to the method of Jewish Education, the latter stages of which was used by Jesus with his young disciples. Young people who go to school for a couple of hours every morning, 5 or 6 days a week to simply memorise huge portions of the Old Testament. Then they were taught how to study and apply these teachings wisely to their lives.

Education Vs. Youth Club

What we have done, I fear, is spent a huge portion of the last half century doing is driving a wedge between school and youth ministry. We don’t ever want to hear ‘this feels like school’ from a young person. Our mission has been to make everything fun, unique and distinct. There is definitely a lot of good that has come from this approach too! It’s also hard to blame us, considering the among of expectations and undue pressure our school systems place on young people’s shoulders.

There’s also a ‘baby and bathwater’ metaphor that comes to mind, however. We all too easily straight-jacket ourselves into just doing cute things to the point where we lose any cultural expectation to study, learn and develop.

Bringing It Together

We really need to harmonise some learning environment culture with our youth projects and ministry. There needs to be an expectation of hard work and education that happens in our youth work projects. Times do need to be set apart for real Bible Study, meditation and reflection. Space needs to be given over to substantive ethical and philosophical discussion. This can still work in a funnel method, but you need to make clear boundaries and set genuine expectations which you stick to right from day one.

Let’s not be afraid to be educators, and lets not freak out at the idea of doing real Bible study and deep reflections. We are youth workers, so have the right stuff to make this engaging, relevant and authentic. Let’s get stuck in!

Youth Work and Mental Health Pt. 1 – A Gentle Poke

When I was 14, one of my best friends was Daniel. I didn’t know Daniel was clinically depressed or that his random outbursts were actually early signs of bipolar disorder. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal that Daniel’s room only contained a mattress, a guitar and a pile of black hoodies. All I knew was he was fun and unique to be around, and that he had an unusually broad talent for music.

We drifted apart over the years, which meant it came as a bigger shock when he was found in a flat, dead at age 23, after swallowing a mix of alcohol and methadone.

Daniel was a disruption to the classroom environment. He was always in trouble and – as far as I knew – had no-one working with him to identify or work with his root causes. To me though, Daniel was just a mate who I’ll never see again.

I’d like to think that I’m a passionate advocate for the mental health world. At least I believe that we neither spend enough or research enough to develop treatment for those who really struggle. Classrooms are simply not geared for it, and the health service doesn’t really step into that gap. Self medicating is all too often the only option that seems available.

I also truly believe that the Church is supposed to define and lead culture – that we should be setting the trends, making the calls and leading the charges. Can we then, as youth workers and as Church develop programs that specifically work with young people during the early signs of mental health issues? Can we cultivate a culture in our programs that leaves room to observe, identify and even treat young people who are going through these struggles?

Daniel was my mate, but there was at the time no language to discuss these problems, or develop an awareness that this could be happening to someone I knew. The language is more available today, but I’m not sure if we’re any closer to implementing real, culture-saturating change.

Bill Hybels said “the local church is the hope of the world.” Can we be this hope that the world is so desperately craving? Daniel’s mum said, “I hate to think another young life could be wasted as tragically as Daniel’s has been.” Can we be the answer to her prayers?

Please, talk to your young people regularly and clearly about mental health. Talk to your team about how to organically identify and respond to needs. Finally, lets keep talking to God – crying out to him for healing and restoration; for the redemption of a culture that lifts up the broken and downtrodden, and helps all people live a life to the full as Jesus taught (John 10:10).

Working With Introverted Young People

A few months ago I appeared on the fantastic youth ministry podcast ‘The Longer Haul‘ to talk about ministering to introverted students. This is an issue that keeps coming up, and I think represents one of the fundamental missteps youth ministry can take.

For those of us who prefer reading to listening, I’ve taken some of my key thoughts from the podcast and written them up here as notes. Enjoy!

The Extrovert Epidemic

Much of our youth ministry is focused towards the extrovert. This follows a cultural pattern of being extrovert-driven too. Our school rooms and classes, for instance, are geared towards controlling and regulating the extrovert by putting them in rows, or engaging and energising the extrovert by pushing group discussions and activities. Also, modern offices are moving towards more open plan layouts, instantaneous planning sessions, and group enterprises.

In youth work we’re very adept at running youth work projects and particularity events; “everybody jump or I’ll squirt you with this water pistol!” But it even exists in our naturally quieter, small group ministry, “everybody go round and tell us something interesting about yourself.”

This creates a subliminal constant message that the introvert is not as able as the extrovert.

Jody pointed out in the interview that often youth ministries take on the character of their leader. Very true! There are of course many extroverted youth workers, especially new or younger youth workers, as extroversion is not necessarily the best ingredient for longevity. Introverts more naturally allow their teams to outgrow them, run with ideas and create a space and flavour that reflects more than one person. Introverts often create safer boundaries, develop more realistic goals and allow more open dialogue for change.

Extroverts may need to learn this behaviour, as they are often the charismatic force that drives content, holding ideas close, while not always delegating effectively. This of course is not always true, but the intro-extroversion line seems to me to be a key player.

I believe that youth ministry models and strategies, on a whole, tend to lean towards the extrovert. It certainly seems, at least, that developing extroverts in youth work is more well-established. So we will attempt here to bring in some balance, by developing specific ideas for developing introverts.

What Is An Introvert?

We often hear introversion linked with shyness, and extroversion with boldness. Although there can be links, it doesn’t take more than an amateur pop psychologist to tell you that this is a false assumption to make all the time. You can easily by a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert.

I think about introverts using two sides of a coin. On one side is ‘how are they energised’ and on the other, ‘how do they process information.’

Energy?

An extrovert is energised by social stimulus in various forms (what kind depends on the extrovert), whereas the introvert tends to be drained by that. Both might enjoy going to a party, but while the extrovert may come back energised – like they have received from it, the introvert might want some down time – feeling like they have given out.

Information?

An extrovert tends to process verbally. When responding to a question they start speaking, showing their working until they get to an answer – you see the process and various types of responses and working out along with perhaps several answers. This is why extroverts are sometimes seen as rude through impatience. An introvert processes internally. They stop, think for a minute about what the question means, what else it could mean, what they know, how an answer could sound, how else it could be phrased etc. This happens internally an is why introverts are sometimes seen as rude through withdrawal.

This also might be why we as youth leaders subliminally prefer talking to extroverts. They provide more real time feedback on the conversation without looking like they are glazing over. It’s too easy to assume that the introvert is angry at us, or just bored or afraid when they are 1. giving us energy just by being there and 2. internally processing.

Bring It Together

When you put the energy (down time, reflective, away from most social stimuli) and the process (internal, cognitive) together you get your introvert.

It is of course very possible to be an internally processing extrovert, or an introvert who is energised by carefully cultivated social times. Just one of the reasons we shouldn’t be too prescriptive with any of this!

5 Principles For Introverted Youth Ministry

Jody pointed out that you will need both introverts and extroverts on your team to reach a diverse group. He’s bang on the money again, and we will now talk about putting some principles in place to get the most out of exactly this kind of team. Both introverts and extroverts will need to learn new habits and develop a wider awareness and tolerance, which, if trained and led well, will lead to quality, long-lasting youth ministry!

This requires more than just giving introverts space, as the extrovert will be tempted to fill any space that you give. This needs a rethink of our models to develop introverts intentionally and consistently alongside extroverts. Hopefully these 5 principles will be a good start to this process.

1. Stop using the word ‘everybody’

“Everybody get up and jump!”

“Everybody stand up and stay something about yourself!”

That little word ‘everybody’ can send fear right down the spine of the introverted young person, especially if you give them no time to think and process first. Look instead for inclusive but not expected phases that create safe opt-out spaces in your programs and sessions which allow young people to not engage with aspects of the activities without just dropping off the face of the planet.

2. Look For Ways To Show Value

Introverts (like all of us) need to know they are valued for who they actually are, not what an extroverted-youth-programs make them think they should be. One of the best ways to do this is to develop active listening skills. That’s listening which holds eye contact, makes affirming relevant gestures, repeats back what was said, and develops their side of the conversation over yours.

This is essential when they make a contribution to the group. You need to point to it clearly showing that you have understood their intentions and believe that it is valuable. This is something they will go away and process and become part of their historic experience with you – that you are someone who values them within their identity.

3. Stop, Look, Listen

It’s sometimes easier to spot the behaviours of the extrovert, which tend to carry less subtly in a group. We need to be watching the introverts, noticing what they do, and pointing to it. It’s all too easy to look through the introvert to the active extrovert behind them. Take the time to be with them certainly, but notice them when you’re not. We need to be present to and with our introverted young people consistently.

Be a youth leader who sees, hears and notices. Then names it.

4. Create Opt-Out Spaces

Similar to stop using the word ‘everybody’ this is about creating re-energising, processing times and spaces for the introvert. Make space for young people not to be part of everything. This will need some rethinking of our models.

Assuming that all your young people will equally want to do all activities is one thing, but forcing an introvert into a highly uncomfortable extrovert game is going to create a fight or flight response that’s going to be hard to forget – or forgive. So ‘up front’ games and questions should be voluntary – not pointing and naming. Group games and activities should be designed so they are easy to jump in and out of too. Ice-breakers should be easy enough to pass on too. It should be enough to say “I’m Tim, hi!” without having to then go on to explain my 14 favourite types of spatula… unless of course I want to!

This works for spaces too. Youth rooms tend to be noisy and busy, the layout is activity-driven. So having spaces that work for the introvert is a must. We have a ‘quiet room’ in our group setup with head-phoned music, books, colouring, beanbags and simple games. Conversation in their is kept to a minimum.

This is essential because a big fear for the introvert is letting people down;

“If I don’t participate, I’ll let my team down.”

“If I don’t say something, then I’ll let the leader down.”

These times and spaces should be intentional expectations for the fabric of the group – so rather than ‘letting us down’ they are participating in how the group is supposed to work.

5. Cultivate A Culture Of Conversation

Introverts can be incredibly creative and intelligent, and can be amazing conversational partners. In our youth ministry programs, however, sometimes the only time we give to conversation is before or afterwards, or during the break. This is not intentional conversation.

Developing real intentional conversation within our programs needs us to dramatically rethink the content. During one of our groups ‘Redefine’ we make sure every element (talks, prayer, worship, games) each has a give and take philosophy. Talks and teaching always encourage interruptions, we regularly run Q&A, and we put music up on the screen so they can bring their own instruments with them. Everything invites them to participate and add to the conversation. We also run TED nights where they bring their own talks and teaching.

Developing this as a culture – so a regular part of what you do – actually creates a lot more safety and sure-footing for the introvert as well as some healthy engagement for the extrovert. It’s win-win.

Find Out More

This is just the cliff notes of a great 50 minute conversation with Jody. Check out the whole thing at The Longer Haul here. Or on the iTunes podcast here.

This is an ongoing conversation – if you’ve got anything to add, please get in touch, or comment below. 🙂

Also – check out Chloe’s awesome comics on ‘Things Introverts In Your Youth Group HATE!”